ET's Clarinet Studio
Mozart Concerto in A Major for Clarinet and Orchestra
by Eric Tishkoff



Historical Background

At the peak of his compositional abilities and just weeks before his death, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) composed the Clarinet Concerto in A major. He wrote it specifically for his friend and fellow freemason, Anton Stadler. This was hardly the first time Mozart wrote for Stadler; he was the intended player for numerous orchestral parts and several chamber works, including the "Kegelstatt Trio" K. 498 and the Clarinet Quintet K 581.

Stadler was a leading player of his day, however, he was often known to choose second clarinet parts because he preferred the lower portion of the instrument's range. In keeping with his preference, Stadler customized a clarinet by adding several keys and additional tubing. This had the effect of extending the instrument's range from a written E to a C, and established a version of the clarinet now referred to as a basset clarinet. Unfortunately none of Stadler's instruments have survived into modern times and so the evidence is entirely documentary.

Like Stadler's instrument, there is no extant manuscript of Mozart's clarinet concerto. What does survive is an unfinished draft of the Concerto's precursor. It is written for basset horn in G but is otherwise essentially the same piece through its 199 measures. This manuscript is dated to a time just before the Concerto was composed. Since Stadler was also a virtuoso basset horn player, it is apparent that both were intended for him, and that the basset horn version was aborted in favor of the basset clarinet version. This may very well have been a practical decision based on the greater difficulty of building the mechanism required to play basset notes on a basset horn as opposed to Stadler's new basset clarinet.

Within 11 years of the Concerto's composition, Breitkopf & Härtel, among others, had published an edition that was adapted for the standard A clarinet. All the extended range notes had been removed from the solo part. Since Stadler had lost the manuscript within a few years, the early adaptation formed the basis for future editions of the Concerto. A contemporary, published review of the Breitkopf & Härtel edition stated that while the Concerto was made playable on an ordinary clarinet, the piece was not improved by the changes.

The Neue Mozart Ausgabe (NMA) was begun in the 1950s as an effort to construct new, authoritative editions of Mozart's music (the work continues to this day). The new versions of Mozart's music are based on original manuscripts and scholarly research. This stands in marked contrast to prevailing practice of the previous century in which publishers exercised a free hand in altering composers' works. Much of the NMA's work was a matter of undoing years of distortions, embellishments, and various other editorial "improvements."

The Clarinet Concerto was one of the more problematic works the NMA faced because it lacked a manuscript or authoritative score. It required, in places, reconstruction of the solo line based largely on those distorted editions it was intended to replace. Changes to the solo line from standard published editions were decided upon using:

  • documentary evidence
  • the basset horn fragment
  • examination of the work's internal logic
  • comparison with similar passages in other works of Mozart, i.e., stylistic consideration
The NMA edition was overseen by Franz Giegling and completed in 1977.

While the NMA restored the Concerto's bottom, there is still an issue regarding its performance: basset clarinets are rare. Major manufacturers of professional clarinets-including Buffet, Leblanc, Selmer, and Wurlitzer-currently offer basset clarinets. Contemporary performers such as Sabine Meyer and Charles Neidich have recorded basset clarinet versions of the Concerto. However, access to basset clarinets is the exception. The cost of a basset clarinet and its overall lack of utility render it fairly impractical. Most clarinetists still perform the Concerto on a standard-range A clarinet. Thus it is now up to the individual performer-as opposed to a publisher-to decide how to adapt the reconstructed Concerto to a standard clarinet.

Most clarinetists work from one of the many clarinet and piano reductions of the Concerto, and there are now almost as many versions of the piece as there are editions. Most useful are ones that include the reconstruction along with an adapted version. For example, the Bärenreiter edition is taken directly from the NMA, and contains the complete authoritative version. In places where the solo line uses the basset range, i.e., dips below the range of a normal A-clarinet, two staves are used-one showing the NMA version, and the other showing an adapted version. This provides performers with an acceptable adapted version but also leaves open the opportunity for performers to create their own adaptation.

In 1967, 10 years before the NMA edition, Robert Marcellus and the Cleveland Orchestra recorded the Concerto. That recording became an essentially canonized standard of the piece, and maintained its exalted position for approximately 20 years. However, as the NMA version became more widely published and modern basset clarinets became available, performance practice began to change. The changing attitude is expressed well in various recent reviews:

Robert Marcellus had the true "American" sound... His reading is straight ahead, no fancy ornamentation.
Robert Marcellus was a legend in his own time. Those of us who play the instrument have been enthralled with the clarity and warmth of his tone and the technical mastery of his performance on this recording. This is the recording that clarinetists revere, although there have been some excellent (and more historically accurate) recordings since.

These reviews acknowledge the quality of Marcellus' recording, and at the same time reveal the new trend. Marcellus himself believed:

Mozart's Clarinet Concerto must not be the victim of clarinetistry and technique; rather, the legato aspects of the work, along with the evenness of tone, should receive emphasis in its interpretation.

While the Marcellus recording is still highly respected, recent interpretations lean towards a new ideal. Ironically, the effort to establish an authoritative version has been the main catalyst in opening up interpretation of the piece in general. It seems that every performer has a slightly different manner of adapting the Concerto to the standard clarinet, and embellishments and cadenzas are now an accepted part of the performance practice, making performances more varied and dynamic. Rather than constrain clarinetists, the NMA edition has provided food for thought, and inspired performers to thoroughly examine their approach to the work and to reinterpret it.

While a master of all classical genres, Mozart's most influential advances were probably in the area of the concerto as well as opera. Each of his concertos has its own individualistic style-each possesses unique proportions and realization of the overall form. This is all the more remarkable when one considers that he wrote nearly 30 piano concertos, almost 10 for strings, and more than 10 for winds. In all 50 concertos Mozart employed the same basic form. Each contains three movements:

  • First: generally in double-sonata form
  • Second: Variable, slow movement
  • Third: lighter, usually rondo or sonata-rondo, sometimes a variation form

In addition to standard strings, nearly all of the orchestrations contain woodwind sections and French horns, and some use trumpets and timpani as well. Such full accompaniments contribute to the symphonic quality of the concertos, which is one of their most innovative and influential features. Mozart's treatment of the genre was so complete that it has changed little in substance since his death, despite the fact that practically every major composer after him has written in it.

As the final concerto, indeed probably the final orchestral work of any kind that Mozart completed, the Clarinet Concerto stands as a supreme example of the genre and contains some of Mozart's finest writing for any instrument. He had already written extensively for the clarinet and basset horn, and all of these works indicate a remarkable understanding of the instrument's capabilities and idiosyncrasies. The Concerto uses the entire standard range of the instrument, from low C (basset clarinet) to high G. Timbral differences of the clarinet's various registers are beautifully employed to vary mood and affect. The clarinet's ability to navigate very large intervals is tastefully demonstrated in numerous passages and helps create excitement and freshness.


Adaptation of Basset Notes

I prefer to use the Bärenreiter edition of the Concerto mainly due to its readability and clear presentation of the basset and standard clarinet parts. In the past I have also used the International version, edited by Reginal Kell. Having studied the Concerto with several teachers (Vincent Patti, Ted Johnson, Larry Maxey, Fred Ormand, Jane Carl, and others) and listened to numerous performances and recordings, my approach to the adaptation is a conglomeration of ideas and concepts. Note that no matter how well reasoned an interpretive decision may be, in the end, interpreation is essentially a matter of personal preference.

One guideline I consider critical is to maintain direction of the melodic line. A clear example of this is evident in movement I measures 331-333. The basset part sounds an identical one-measure figure three times--each time one octave lower. Since the final repetition includes the basset note low C, some adaptations write measure 333 as a verbatim repeat of measure 332. Other versions have the first half of the measure in the topmost octave (as in measure 331) and the second half of the measure one octave below that (as in measure 332). Both of these presentations sacrifice the continuity of the melodic line descending through three octaves in favor of strictly maintaining the pitch class.

My preference is to substitute G for C and leave all the remaining pitches as they are indicated in the basset part. The figure is merely an arpeggiated pattern, and thus sounding G, also part of the pattern, is a barely noticeable change. Substituting one chord tone for another within a quick pattern does far less damage to the musical line than preserving the pitch class and losing the dramatic three-octave descent.

Another application of this guideline may be seen in the final movement, in measures 311-317. Both the Bärenreiter and International versions of measures 311-313 are an octave higher than the basset part, solely in order to preserve two low-Cs in a very fast, 30-note, arpeggiated pattern.

This adaptation is objectionable for two reasons. First, the four measures preceding measure 311 descend over a total of two octaves, and set up the arpeggiated pattern at the lower octave. Playing the pattern an octave higher than intended destroys the direction of the musical line. Second, even at a fast performance tempo, the pattern is relatively easy when played in its intended octave. When transposed up one octave it crosses the clarinet's register break repeatedly, and at high speed, thus rendering the passage extremely difficult to execute smoothly.

Immediately following this pattern are four measures of dotted quarter notes. Half of these pitches are again written one octave higher in order to facilitate playing a single grace note, low-D. By eliminating the grace note, the passage can otherwise be played as written, which preserves the intended two-and-a-half octave leaps. Large leaps are common throughout the entire Concerto, and are an effect particularly well accomplished on the clarinet. Eliminating them detracts from the Concerto's bravura quality and simultaneously mitigates extremes that Mozart wove so intricately into the texture of the piece.


Unlike nearly all of Mozart's other concertos, the Clarinet Concerto lacks a true cadenza. The piece does contain three held dominant chords, which would typically permit an Eingang--two in the first movement and one in the second. The first one occurs in measure 127 and is somewhat problematic in that the orchestra, not the clarinet, begins immediately following the fermata. The other two instances, measure 315 and movement II measure 59, are followed by solo clarinet passages and present inviting opportunities.

Current performance practice is all over the chart regarding how long or short and what form such an Eingang may be. In his famous recording, Marcellus played only the commonly printed two note cadence for both instances in the first movement. In the second movement, he played one of the long-standard Eingänge (duration 10 seconds), which is taken from Mozart's Clarinet Quintet.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Charles Neidich recording. For the first Eingang he plays a relatively short flourish. For the second one he inserts a much longer (35 second) passage that develops motivic material. Similarly, in the second movement, his cadenza lasts for 30 seconds and again develops a musical idea. Proof of Neidich's concept is made clear by the fact that the compact disc's back cover acknowledges Neidich with writing the "cadenzas." These two recordings simply serve to demonstrate the range of possibilities open to contemporary performers.

I choose to follow Neidich's example by including longer Eingänge-or short cadenzas-for the second and third fermatas. The first one remains shorter due to the reason mentioned above, namely that the resolution of the dominant chord must be reserved for the orchestra, which leaves no possibility for a cadenza to modulate or resolve.

While the first of the three cadenzas in my performance is in common use, the second and third cadenzas are original. Number two begins with a flourish and then sequences the main theme as an Eingang into the a tempo. Similarly, the second movement Eingang sequences and embellishes the interval of a fourth, which is the opening interval of the movement's main theme.

Eingang 1, movement I measure 127

Eingang 2, movement 1 measure 315

Eingang 3, movement II measure 59


Two issues must be addressed that are specific to performing a solo piece with orchestral accompaniment: balance and orchestral responsiveness. Ensuring good balance between solo clarinet line and the orchestral accompaniment is essential to a successful performance. Poor balance can obscure the clarinet part so that the audience is simply unable to hear some of the most subtle and hard-practiced soloistic passages. By the same token, making the orchestral part too soft can lessen the overall power and impact of the piece. The issue is complicated because the requirements for good balance change constantly depending on accompanimental texture, range that the clarinet is playing in, and dynamic marking of the passage.

There is also the issue of balance within the orchestra. Different parts and instruments must be heard more or less depending on their musical role at any given time. An excellent example can be found in movement II measures 80-81 where the inner strings (second violin and viola) along with flutes carry an especially unusual harmonic progression. While the progression is apparent regardless of balance, emphasizing these instruments' contrapuntal movement adds richness and direction to the passage. Balance within the orchestra is largely a matter of awareness among players. It would be impossible to notate or direct the relative importance of every nuance or figure in every part.

The issue of orchestral responsiveness refers to the larger, accompanimental group's tendency to lag behind the soloist. This occurs because orchestral players rely (by convention) primarily on the conductor to determine changes to tempo. This creates a problem for the soloist in that if the conductor does not anticipate a change and indicate it to the orchestra before the fact, then there is a delay between when the soloist makes a change and when the orchestra makes the same change. In contrast, when playing chamber music each player must assume complete responsibility for anticipating and effecting changes, which generally results in a more pliable texture.

I deal with these issues in two ways. First, to help achieve balance within the orchestra, the first and second violins can be situated across from each other as opposed to next to each other. This greatly helps balance within the orchestra for two reasons:

  • musicians can hear each other's parts much more clearly and can better judge their place in the overall texture
  • by moving the violas to the spot where second violins normally sit, their sound projects better into the hall, which is a perennial problem with the dark, covered sound of viola

There is an added bonus to placing the violin sections on opposite sides of the stage. The Concerto contains exciting contrapuntal writing that employs the first and second violin sections as independent voices. An example is seen in movement I measures 25-26. The canon begins in the second violins, then the violas enter, and finally the first violins. By spatially separating the violin sections, the two voices are more clearly distinguished, thereby enhancing the contrapuntal writing and creating an antiphonal effect.

The other technique for dealing with balance and also orchestral responsiveness is to play without a conductor. While this may seem counterintuitive, discarding the conductor transforms the atmosphere from an orchestra to a chamber ensemble. Each player assumes a heightened responsibility for balance and tempo. As long as the orchestra can hear the solo part, they are capable of anticipating and responding without a conductor acting as intermediary. In practice, this does place some additional responsibility on the concertmaster and principle second violinist. Nevertheless, the orchestral players usually enjoy the opportunity to play without conductor.

It must be said, though, that performing without a conductor has its pitfalls. This became most evident to me when a conductor friend listened to part of a rehearsal and subsequently made some very succinct and helpful suggestions. These included seating the violin sections opposite each other as well as several other remarks about balance and ensemble.

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Copyright © 2001, Eric Tishkoff. All rights reserved. This article may not be used commercially without the express written consent of the author.